Age is no hindrance to 34-year-old New York Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner. He currently leads all outfielders with 14 Defensive Runs Saved this season, if you combine his work in center field and left field.
This is nothing new for Gardner, who saved 20 runs defensively in 2017, his third season with at least 20, but his first since he had 23 in 2011.
Here are the outfield leaders in Defensive Runs Saved this season.
He’s stayed healthy in a season in which some of the best in the game (Byron Buxton, Kevin Kiermaier, Mookie Betts) have not. And Gardner’s the best, even though most of the game’s top outfielders (Betts, Buxton, Jason Heyward) are five to 10 years younger than he is.
So how does Gardner keep up?
Gardner’s defensive numbers are driven by a few things.
Because of how they are positioned, it is hard for an outfielder to excel on both shallow fly balls and deep fly balls. But Gardner has no such trouble.
Gardner rates 11 plays above average on balls hit to the shallowest parts of the outfield and 14 plays above average on balls hit to the deepest parts of the outfield over the last two seasons.
In other words, take all the balls hit within catching distance of Gardner in that time. He caught that many more balls than an average player would have.
Buxton is the only other outfielder to be at least plus-9 in both in that time.
Over the last two seasons, Gardner has seven Defensive Runs Saved with his arm, including two this season. This year’s came from a combination of three outfield assists that didn’t require the help of a cutoff man, and that 32 percent of baserunners took an extra base on him when he was playing left field and 39 percent (5-of-13) did so when he was in center field (both are slightly better than the major league averages).
If you’re having trouble thinking of a great play by Gardner this season, you’re not alone. He has four “Good Fielding Plays” this season, but they’re for his outfield assists and an instance of cutting a ball off to hold a batter to a single.
Gardner has done what he’s done this season while staying on his feet. He’s rarely slid or dove, and has limited his leaping attempts as well. But in left field, he’s fared well relative to other left fielders when he sprints (we track the fielder’s approach to the ball), recording outs on 40 percent of his sprinting approaches (14-of-35).
Only Jon Jay, at 41 percent, is better at the position among the 30 players with the most opportunities (82 plays). This was not a Gardner strength last season, but so far it has been one for him in 2018.
Great defense is not always about diving, sliding or leaping. In this case, it’s just about getting in position to make plays and doing your job. Gardner isn’t the fanciest defender out there. But he’s among the best in the game.